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The multinational make-up of the Oxford University vaccine team

At least 26% of the 383 scientists working on the Oxford University Covid vaccine team are not British. (Photo by Allan Carvalho/NurPhoto via Getty Images) - Credit: NurPhoto via Getty Images

JAMES O’MALLEY reports how the Oxford coronavirus vaccine is far from a case of British exceptionalism – 37 nationalities are helping to work on it..

As the world sits paralysed, waiting anxiously for a vaccine to stop the spread of coronavirus, one source of hope can be found in Britain. The Oxford Covid-19 vaccine trial is a collaboration between the University of Oxford’s Vaccine Group and the Jenner Institute, and it has been making headlines around the world as it nudges ever closer to the news we’re all waiting for.

Most recently, it has published a study that reveals that the vaccine it is working on – dubbed ChAdOx1 – provokes the hoped for T-cell and antibody response, with ‘no early safety concerns’. It is now in the final stage of trials that were due to last until the end of November. The quest hit a setback this week, after a participant had an ‘unexplained illness’, causing the trial to be put on hold. But the team have described it as ‘routine’ – it is actually the second time it has happened since the first volunteers were immunised in April – and said that it underlines their commitment to safety.

There will now be an independent review, but the trials could restart within days. The impact of this delay is, of course, unknown but the most optimistic estimate is that the vaccine could be submitted to medical regulators by as early as the end of the year. Setbacks or not, thanks to the work in Oxford, there could soon be light at the end of the tunnel.

And the world is already eager to pay up: Manufacturer AstraZeneca is lining up capacity to supply two billion doses of the vaccine, and pre-orders have already been made by the British government to the tune of 100 million doses, with both the United States and a consortium of European countries looking to similarly purchase 400 million doses each.

Obviously then, this critical work is something that, as Britons, we should be enormously proud of, and should feel suitably patriotic that we are the home of such a thriving scientific community. Indeed, we should. Yet this scientific prowess is not a simple matter of British exceptionalism. The reason British science is world-leading is because the best scientists in the world are choosing to make Britain their home.

And there is perhaps no better example of science as a collective, global pursuit than Oxford’s vaccine group itself. Figures I have obtained under the Freedom of Information Act show the full international composition of the team. They reveal that of the 383 individuals directly working on the vaccine, at least 68 are nationals from the countries that are members of the European Union or single market, and at least 32 are from other countries around the world. Some 67 are of unknown origin, according to the group’s own figures – so the numbers could be even more striking.

The 68 non-British Europeans working on the trial are from 17 countries and include 12 Irish scientists, 10 French, nine Italian and eight German. The non-EU/single market scientists are from 19 countries – including China, India, New Zealand and Nepal. In total, it means that at least 26% of the scientists working on the Covid vaccine are not British.

What’s remarkable – or perhaps, not remarkable – is that these figures are in line with the rest of British science. According to Universities UK, around 40% of science, technology and engineering academics are from overseas.

So it is rather unfortunate then, that on December 31 this year, as Britain ends the Brexit transition period, that this will also herald the end of freedom of movement, the arrangement that made it possible for many of those scientists to come and work in the UK.

This means that EU scientists coming to the UK, like their colleagues from further afield, will be forced to apply for work visas. A process that can be expensive. According to an analysis conducted for the Royal Society, a ‘skilled worker permit’ in the UK currently costs individuals and sponsors (such as an employer) £8,419 in total – compared to an average of just £1,316 in other leading science nations. For PhD-level skilled workers, a visa will cost £3,419 – significantly more than the average of £971 in other countries.

Given the importance of immigration to British science, since the referendum the government has attempted to walk the fine line of promising to toughen up Britain’s immigration rules while making reassuring noises towards scientists and other highly skilled professions.

Earlier this year, home secretary Priti Patel announced the details of an Australian-style ‘points-based’ immigration system, while the government has also announced the creation of an ‘Office for Talent’ that will be managed by the prime minister’s office directly, that will – somehow – oversee visas for the highly skilled and will conceivably help scientists work in Britain.

But many EU scientists currently working in the UK appear unconvinced about the new immigration regime, and worry about the impact it could have on both their science, and the lives of scientists who work, or want to work here.

‘A scientist may have to move countries every few years, because we’re expected to gain diverse experience, and because getting a permanent job is not easy and takes years of building up our research portfolio,’ explains Dr Agata Dymarska, a cognitive psychologist at Lancaster University, who is originally from Poland.

‘That’s detrimental enough to one’s personal life, but now leaving the UK could mean closing the door to having the right to work here in the future – if you do not return within a few years, you may be treated like someone who never had any rights even though you had lived here for years.’

Dr Claudia Wascher, who researches animal behaviour at Anglia Ruskin and is from Austria, says that she and her partner would probably both be considered ‘skilled workers’, but the new regime still may make their personal circumstances more challenging.

‘Our field is highly competitive and we are on short-term contracts for quite a long time, and not always lucky to find a job right away, so there are potentially short periods of unemployment, which will be tricky when free movement ends,’ she explains.

A striking example of this is given by zoologist Dr Joanna Bagniewska, who was born in Poland. She worries that as visas will be determined by the government, it could inevitably lead to a hierarchy where some branches of science are valued more highly than others. And though she has settled status now, she believes that if she were not already here it might be different. ‘With a degree in [science] from Oxford, wouldn’t make Priti’s cut,’ she laments.

And even if scientists do qualify for visas with relative ease, there are still added costs that may create barriers to working in Britain, such as the costs of the visas themselves and the NHS surcharge, which new EU arrivals will be forced to pay from next year. These sorts of costs are ‘definitely going to be an issue for early-career researchers,’ says Dr Célia Souque, who researches antibiotic resistance at Oxford, ‘academia is really not a high-earning career,’ she says.

So given these concerns, could the end of the transition period be about to deliver a hammer blow to British science? Will Britain still be an attractive place for world leading scientists like those working on the Covid vaccine that weren’t born in the UK?

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